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Wednesday, July 3

Give Me a Beat: Rhythm in Dialog

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Just like rhythm in the narrative can hook or bore your reader, the flow of your dialog can also cause a reader to stay or skim. Too many tags can sound choppy, too few can get confusing. How you say it plays a big role in how much your readers want to hear, so look at how your dialog -- and what comes after it -- hits your reader's ears.

Go With the Flow
One of the "rules" of writing you hear a lot of is to use as few dialog tags as possible. But it's not the tags themselves that cause trouble, it's how they flow with the rest of the sentence. Not using any he said type tags can actually hurt the rhythm of a sentence, as we struggle to avoid a word that readers don't even notice anymore. At least, not unless it's drawing undue attention to itself.

Let's check in with Bob and the gang for some examples:

Overusing Said
Said may be invisible, but only when used properly. It isn't a free pass to put it into every line of dialog or you end up with...
"I think we lost them," Bob said.
"Are you sure? Because I heard groaning," Jane said.
"That's just you whimpering without realizing it," Sally said.
Cringing yet? Only three lines, but already that he said tag is reaching out and slapping us. It also kills the rhythm of these sentences, acting a like a full stop at the end. You get a stuttery, stop-and-go feel here that's no fun to read. Try instead...
Bob dropped the curtains back into place. "I think we lost them."
"Are you sure?" Jane asked. "Because I'm pretty sure I heard groaning."
"That's just you whimpering without realizing it." Sally spoke low, but he caught it anyway. At least Jane was still too freaked out to have noticed.
Bob's dialog: I shifted the tag to the beginning to help break up the flow. It's a good spot to show some stage direction, and lets him speak without having to use a said phrase. Tagging before a dialog line can help maintain the rhythm of a paragraph or scene if what came before it requires a little lead in.

Jane's dialog: I tucked an equally invisible tag in there -- asked. While you don't want to tag every question with asked, it's a good word to help break up the repetitious said when you have multiple speakers and can't rely on the natural back and forth of the dialog to show who's speaking. The middle tag also works like a bridge between the two other speakers. I then added a few more words so Jane's second phrase wasn't the same size as her first, further altering the rhythm.

Sally's dialog: Her line is tagged more by Bob's internalization, avoiding both a said tag and stage direction on her part. It helps keep the scene in Bob's POV, and prevents a flat rhythm. It also gives me opportunity to expand that thought a little so I can vary the rhythm even more by adding the last line.

Not Using Enough Said Tags
On the flip side, is not enough tags. If you go out of your way to avoid all said tags, you end up with...
"I think we lost them." Bob sighed and ran a hand across his sweaty brow.
"Are you sure?" Jane pulled aside the curtains and peeked out. "Because I heard groaning."
"That's just you whimpering without realizing it." Sally dumped her duffel on the faded hotel bedspread.
Just as bad, isn't it? Do you get the feel of a scene unfolding or just a list of people talking and moving? It's almost like flat stage direction, as if what's said has nothing to do with what's done. Try...
Bob sighed. "I think we lost them."
"Are you sure?" Jane pulled aside the curtains, a dumb move even for her. "Because I'm pretty sure I heard groaning."
A snort. Sally of course.
"That's just you whimpering without realizing it."
Bob's dialog: Again, I think the tag in front works well here because he introduces the scene and it's his POV. I trimmed out some of the stage direction because we just didn't need it, especially if I have Jane moving next line. Too many people moving at once can be hard to keep track of, and it draws too much attention.

Jane's dialog: Again, Jane works tagged in the middle, but I slipped in some more internalization from Bob to help break it up. It makes sense in this scene to let her move, even more so if she's acting in a way that might cause trouble. So this goes from just being a tag, to being something that might make the reader worry.

Sally's dialog: Sally doesn't get an actual tag here, because using Bob's internalization to show what's going on makes it clear she's the one who speaks next.
The Talk and Move
Another rhythm killer is talking and moving. From a logistical standpoint it seems fine, because that's how you'd seen the scene play out, but it often ends up hitting the ears funny because there's no real flow.
"I think we need a better plan." Bob sighed and dropped into a chair. "Something that doesn't require us leaving behind half our supplies." He ran a hand through his hair. "I'm open to suggestions if anyone has one." He stared at Sally and Jane. "Anyone?"
Breaking the dialog into smaller bits never lets what's being said build any tension. It's just pieces of information one right after the other, with no sense of which one is important. Try...
Bob sighed and dropped into a chair. "I think we need a better plan Something that doesn't require us leaving behind half our supplies. I'm open to suggestions if anyone has one."
He stared at Sally and Jane. They stared back, but said nothing.
 Bob's dialog: A little shifting around and the flow is better. The tag at the front establishes Bob as the speaker. Combining a few lines of dialog puts the pause in a more natural place in the conversation. It also moves the scene forward because Bob is asking for their input, which gives me a perfect opportunity to shift back to them for their response -- which is nothing. That allows me to use a one word question implying that Bob doesn't have any better ideas, and they're probably in a lot of trouble. One more opportunity to raise tension and end on a short punchy line before I go into what will probably be a longer internalization paragraph. Because doesn't this just feel like Bob is about to think about his options and what to do next? Going from long to short lines is a good lead in for that.

Dialog is fast-paced by nature, so what we put around it will either slow it down or keep it moving. If we think about how the rest of the text flows into the dialog, we can not only better control the rhythm, but control the pacing and the tension as well.


  1. I've found that reading aloud works the best for getting things to flow, even if your idea of "reading aloud" is just mumbling to yourself. And if anything's a tongue-twister, it's too long or confusing.

  2. Very Usefull post! Good thoughts, I find that dialogue come naturally for me, though and I feel that it does because I know my characters so darn well :)

  3. Great suggestions. The examples really show what works and what doesn't.

  4. Hmm... I'm going to play around with these.

    I think that your tips will help with breaking blocks of dialogue too...


  5. I recognize that last problem as one I used to have a LOT of trouble with. Seeing it spelled out makes me realize how far I've come. :)

  6. Carradee: Reading aloud is such a great test for rhythm.

    FantasticFiction: That's awesome!

    Natalie: Thanks :)

    Misha: I think they would, indeed.

  7. I'm terrible for the "talk and move." I really must watch that.

  8. Paul: That's what edits are for! (grin)

  9. Excellent post! It's all about finding that precise balance to keep the flow, like you said. And not to be afraid to drop in a "said" once in a while. :)

  10. Yay! I can read you in my feed reader again! :)

  11. Oh my gosh. This post is amazing. Reminds me of a book I edited recently in which I'm pretty sure the author had a thesaurus open to "said" laying next to him -- every other piece of dialogue was "he sniped" or "she spat" or "he muttered," or even "he said quizzically." What he didn't consider is that sometimes, a good old-fashioned "he said" does the trick, especially when the dialogue gives us enough of a clue as to how he said it!

    Thanks for a great post!

  12. Sarah, ouch! It does get laughable after a while :) Not good when an author wants to be taken seriously though.

  13. I also find that reading aloud can help me catch the beat or lack thereof.

    And too many saids is just...sad lol!

  14. Angela, reading aloud is awesome for that. It's also good for catching rough patches that tie up the tongue.

  15. Good stuff! I just figured this out myself while revising lately. There were a couple of "said" tags that weren't really necessary, but I left them because of the flow and rhythm of the passage. :)

  16. Carol, cool! The flow is really important. How the words hit the ear is more valuable to a good story than some "rules" of writing. Language is fluid and beautiful, and we do it a disservice if all we focus on are the technical aspects.